Book Review: The Tale of Raw Head & Bloody Bones

The Tale of Raw Head & Bloody Bonestale of raw headby Jack WolfPenguin Books, 2013Jack Wolf's remarkably intelligent and headstrong debut novel The Tale of Raw Head & Bloody Bones tells the story of young Tristan Hart, who leaves his country-squire father's house in 1751 to go to the great city of London under the guidance of his father's friend Henry Fielding and study medicine with a respected surgeon at the hospital of St. Thomas. Jack is extremely intelligent and inquisitive, his career is laid before him, and his prospects seem bright - but there's a problem: he's insane.Just how insane - and just what insanity really means - forms the dramatic crux of Wolf's story, which is, in addition to being sharply plotted and beautifully written, an extremely searching meditation on the nature of rationality (fitting enough, for a novel so soaked in the great literature of the Enlightenment). Young Tristan does not rave; he can present himself with any degree of respectability in society (as evidenced by the easy friendship he forms with fellow apprentice Erasmus Glass), but even his own father is ruefully philosophical about mental peculiarities, and he isn't in London long before he's found a whorehouse amenable to his mania for tying up women (and the occasional willowy man) and torturing them. Wolf has Tristan narrate his own story - a story that expands to include Fairy-Folk masquerading as human beings and contracts to the sordid details of 18th-century city life - and this adds layer upon layer of narrative unreliability, especially since Tristan is fascinated with the brain's own narrative structures:

I consider it Memory's greatest Strangeness, with what Ease a Man - even a sane Man - may forget for years a small thing heard, or seen, which later, upon appropriate Stimulus, presseth so intently upon his Awareness that it seem almost more real than that present Moment which hath so recalled it.

The quote also demonstrates Wolf's biggest stylistic gamble: the whole of The Tale of Raw Head & Bloody Bones is told in that faux-18th century fashion, with antique spelling, 'eth' at the end of quite a few verbs, and capitalization signaling not only proper nouns but also metrical emphasis. It's a bravura sustained performance, but large segments of today's fairly timid fiction-reading public will find it rough going.They should strive to acclimate themselves, however, because Wolf has an involved and ultimately quite stirring story to tell. "The most brilliant Physician may, in diagnosing his own Case, prove to be the biggest Fool," Tristan at one point observes, and it's never more true than in his own case: one of the book's most touching narrative threads involves Tristan's worries over his own sanity, in an age when madness was an even deeper (and equally unjust) social stigma than it is today. The modern dogma of naturalism is struggling to be born and free itself from fifteen centuries of superstition, and Tristan has intermittent glimpses of this new intellectual world:

If God is a Balladeer, then we are no mere Characters, our Roles and Choices fixt for us providentially within a song. The World, this World, my Mother's Lord, the intellectual Deus, is a Deity of living thought, cloathed in Atomies; star-Fire and earthly conscious Flesh. He - nay, It - may not merely be earthly conscious Flesh; it must be known, perceived, interpreted; seen thro' the bright lens of a May Morning's Mist; heard in the Whispering of the Wind above the High Chalk. God is this World, and this World only, which is the one World of all Things. It hath no Plan, it doth not judge; simply It is, and all are of It; and thus it is within the free willed Man, who may choose, or not choose, to recognise it.

This is an impressive debut, a work of non-stop invention and fancy; readers are exquisitely caught between revulsion at Tristan's sadistic abnormalities and affection just the same for the person he sometimes is and very much wants to be. Penguin Books is to be commended on taking a chance with such an unconventional work - it's a risk that deserves to pay off.